What is Service Design: Explained by Professionals

August 9, 2021

We at Splendex are producing a video series with the goal of connecting professionals in the IT industry and creating value for those who want to be educated on business development processes. These discussions are centered around actual challenges our clients have struggled with, and genuine questions that our partners have been asking us.

We invite independent specialists (CEOs, developers, freelancers, and other experts) to share their honest opinions and real-life experiences without any restrictions.

Most recently, we talked about service design at length with key players such as:

  • Iván Muck, Co-founder & CEO at ff.next, CSO at Strive
  • László Ágoston, Co-founder, Business Design consultant at meet|
  • and Kamill Kószó, Co-founder, Design Strategist at meet|.

The moderator of the roundtable was Levente Székely, the founder and CEO of Splendex.

What is Service Design?

In short: service design takes an existing product/service and explores the user journey associated with it, identifies the customers’ pain points, and values. The designers then create a system of criteria with suggestions on how to improve the service in question. 

This increases business efficiency, it improves the employees’ experience, but most importantly the customers’ experience. 

Our participants start the service design process with collaborative workshops and research – the goal is the deep understanding of the context. Here, the client and the agency can discover and familiarize themselves with the reality of the situation. They create maps to build awareness in the cognition phase, then propose solutions for the problem. This is all an iterative process, taking many aspects into account, but there are 3 main questions the service design agency always asks. These questions are:

  1. What do the end users want, what do they value?
  2. How harmonious is the solution with the business’ internal and external attitude, how much can the strategy match their vision?
  3. To what extent can we implement the dream solution? (Not only technically, but regarding budget and time too.) 

Service design is a relatively new science; therefore, it can often overlap with other fields and practices. In a traditional setup service design, UI/UX design and development would follow each other, one picking up the project where the other left off. 

Splendex Roundtable - Kamill Kószó - The soul of service design is understanding what the customers want and how they want to achieve it, and planning business processes accordingly.

How Should Service Design be Conducted?

It’s important for service designers to follow an end-to-end approach, because you can have a good experience offline, and a good experience online, but if a promise is broken on the channel between the two, the user can develop frustrations that are much harder to fix than to prevent. While understanding the client’s issues, and the user’s journey, service designers also examine the internal processes. This includes how tasks are handled, how they might get stuck or forgotten. These in-house interactions also shape the external experience, and a lot of conflicts can be resolved like this. 

The participants often spoke of design thinking. It is the process of exploring the users’ challenges via interviews, building personas based on our data, ideating, and prototyping potential solutions, and testing, perfecting them. It allows professionals to make conclusive decisions based on research, instead of relying on intuition, or misleading the project thanks to assumptions and biases. On a similar note, conscious design is also relevant here, which is evaluating processes with the end user in mind. 

What is the State of Service Design in 2021?

Players from almost all industries are starting to be more open-minded towards service design and design thinking. Iván shared that most of their clients are financial institutions, and they’re glad that even more traditional players are willing to discuss innovative solutions. He also shared that sadly, there is not always time for thorough research. Therefore, research is the part which still suffers as opposed to the more tangible design processes. 

Service designers come from very different backgrounds too. Our participant Kamill was a brand strategy professional, while László was a management sociologist before starting their current venture. They both enjoy the hands-on and research-based nature of the service design profession.

Service design and design thinking according to our participants from meet| means, that we should look at every issue and solution including their context. It also means that if we find something that would make it difficult to find a sustainable solution, we take these specific issues out of the overall process and give special attention to tackling them. It also means figuring out how and where users can drop out of the journey and providing support for them. 

Service designers are also not to be confused with the all-knowing, copy-pasting, chatty consultants who have dominated the market a few years ago. Their value proposition used to be that they’ve seen every business issue a hundred times. They tried to help the business by hacking methodologies together and hoping they would work. Instead of this approach, service designers work with individually crafted solutions, they involve the client at every stage. This leads to an actual, scalable, intricate strategy, that the client and their team can execute on their own. 

How Do I Know if My Business Needs Service Design?

Service design forces you away from the whiteboard, and into talking to your end users, and getting their honest experience. This is the most valuable way to understand how customers interact with your service. László admitted that yes, it is more expensive than getting straight to execution, but you should look at it as an investment, a base. If you create a mobile application without thorough research, and you must start from scratch in 3 years, then the price of service design is a small fraction of what you just wasted. If you’re building a house, the foundation must be solid, otherwise the walls can crumble just as easily. 

Service design also has less tangible beneficial side effects since these professionals work closely with your internal team. As a result, your employees will communicate more effectively, and develop a more holistic approach to future issues. The downside of this collaboration is that members of your core team will have to put their day-to-day tasks aside for a few weeks or months to work with the designers, however, it has a very positive effect on their long-term performance. As a side note, most teams really enjoy this collaboration, and regard it as a fun experience.

Clients most often contact a service design agency without a clearly defined brief. What they do have is a clearly defined problem, whether that’s an unprecedented drop in conversion rate, or heightened frustration from users. From this point, designers rewind as far as the business model and value proposition, as well as create a strategy, to reach the KPI-s that’d ensure business growth. 

Why It’s Important to Collaborate with Service Designers

Research is a huge, key part of service design. Some decision makers still shrug it off or try to hurry the process along to the tangible bits. It’s also not helpful if clients believe they already have the turnkey solution and perceive any sort of prototyping and testing as a meaningless delay. Some clients prefer to go against the research data and execute their preconceived ideas regardless of the designers’ advice. Of course, service designers try to empathize, but there needs to be mutual understanding and collaboration to get the best possible results.

While UI/UX design suffered the same criticism a few years ago, it’s getting progressively easier to explain to decision makers. Clients want to increase conversions, sales, cross-selling potential, they want 2 or 3 weekly touch points instead of just one or want to take the burden off brick and mortar locations. Iván shared that while the design processes are usually smooth, some clients believe that implementation is just grunt work, and should be done quickly. In reality, a highly custom, animated design is art to develop. There are many issues that require creative thinking to solve, and even the best developers won’t be able to “just power through” them. 

At the meet| agency, there is also a cultural mission, to leave a team well equipped to carry the project without the service designers’ help. By the time their work is done, they have worked together on multiple projects, and given them the tools to approach issues with a new mindset.

What Tools Do Service Designers Use?

The first tool of service design is lots of research. Examining processes in their own organic context. Research is most often qualitative, in the form of interviews over questionnaires. It’s best to minimize distortions by setting no expectations and destroying the illusions of “good” and “bad” answers. Research is even better digitally (such as Hotjar), these are among the most honest results because people browse most websites with no fear of judgement.

Splendex Roundtable - László Ágoston - I find research crucial, because while putting intuition aside is difficult, it's the only way to base our business decisions on reality, not assumptions and biases.

During concept creation there are a variety of criteria by which service designers observe processes. They also use canvases to find out the pain points, and desires of end users, and how each step of the process can help the client. László emphasized that the canvas is not the important part, they are just tools to help organize a service into logical steps.

On the UI/UX front, Iván shared that their core toolkit consists of focus group interviews, usability tests and prototype creation. Important steps for both fields include prototyping, and testing, this ensures that the business can grow in the most effective way. 

Iván also shared that it’s important to differentiate which tools can be useful for specific clients. He mentioned that even though the process dictates that they should create wireframes, they often go one step further, and show an animated prototype. They do this because a near-ready application is much more understandable to clients. It also helps developers because they can visually see what they are trying to create. Kamill added that if they notice a client doesn’t like the journey creation process on Miro using post-it notes, they can switch to Excel. This doesn’t make life any more difficult for service designers, but the client can rely on this familiar medium, which can boost their willingness to collaborate

The Relationship Between Service Design and UI/UX Design

We mentioned that service design often overlaps with UI/UX design, especially regarding process thinking and in-process visualization. Designing from an outside-in external perspective and translating the results into business solutions is also a characteristic of both fields. 

So, what sets these fields apart? Service design organizes processes at a much higher level, considering offline touchpoints too. It is from this perspective that they can later narrow down to problematic points. Whereas UI/UX design is less comprehensive, the customer journeys of the website are what designers need to improve and optimize. They’re successful if they can increase conversions, and minimize frustration within the website, but they do not need to be concerned with offline touchpoints at all. 

Even at innovative institutions the overlap between fields can cause internal conflicts. Since the toolkit and the end goal (to make something better, smoother, more practical) are very similar, often designers and business analysts can get confused as to why they’re preferred over one another. The main difference is perspective, a service designer can tackle an issue from an entirely different viewpoint than a business analyst and vice versa. In a perfect project, where money and time aren’t critical details, service designers, UI/UX designers, business analysts, solution designers, experience designers all have an important role.

Similarities and Differences Between the Two Fields

There is one common mission between the two fields, to make clients comfortable with uncertainty. To let them know that no matter how many business analysts they employ they will not be able to control and account for all market conditions. This is exactly why service designers start small instead of building a star destroyer from the get-go, to make sure that the solutions answer the real problems. Because if you slip off this track, you will reach for concepts which are not supported by research or data, and implement solutions that may or may not work, based on luck.

So, can we say that service design is more abstract than UX for example? Yes, since the main objective of service design is deciphering the given reality, defining the conceptual level, and building strategy. While UI/UX designers can make a particularly enjoyable application, they do not take into account what frustrations the user base might have outside the digital product.

Splendex Roundtable - Iván Muck - Budgetary constraints often force us, UI/UX designers to solve issues that a service designer would be better quipped to solve - and vice versa.

What Do Some Real Projects Look Like from These Fields?

László shared a real-world example, a science company, which used old measuring instruments. They replaced them with much more modern efficient machines, but ultimately had to switch back to the old ones, because there was no motivation from the employees, no buy-in to start learning this new technology. And so, it was money down the drain for the company, which could have been avoided if they were more perceptive to the challenge modernity might cause.

Kamill also mentioned that most of their projects deal with offline end products. These can have digital touchpoints, but the goal is not achieved digitally. If we’re thinking of a bank for example, this means that service designers explore the purpose and role of a security guard, or the hostesses. They’re responsible for ensuring that the character of the brand is consistent throughout all channels and interactions, digitally and offline. We can think of this as a labyrinth, which designers explore, streamline, and give the client a consistent guidebook on how users will complete the labyrinth. 

Iván said that during UI/UX projects there can be huge differences depending on the client, and their business. He said that a project can take 8 weeks or 8 months to complete, with an almost identical result. They also do auditing work for existing applications, where they cannot start from scratch, and look for quick wins to boost experience. 

How is Service Design Measurable?

Software development has a tangible, clickable output. How measurable is service design, compared to development, and do we need to complete the entire procedure to feel its effects? 

If we do proceed, basically, service design and design thinking metrics are hardcore business metrics. Our participants always discover the core problem in-depth (dropout, fluctuation, not enough orders, etc.) that they will try to solve. The entire plan of action needs to be completed for them to decipher and get to know the given reality, and to set KPI-s, which will help everyone measure the rate of success. If we’re building a new process, with no benchmarks to base our KPI-s on, it gets a little harder, but assumptions can still be made. 

Take this simple example: there is a company who can calculate that they have the potential to make 14 thousand euros if they continue their current operations. When service designers come in, this can serve as a benchmark, and the company is expected to be more profitable after their work is completed. 

What About Service Design for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises? 

In the SME sector we at Splendex often encounter that service design, UI/UX design and development are all our responsibility. Even if we are most specialized in the development aspect, we are building our own UI/UX department, and we enjoy business consulting with our clients. However, this is not the case for all agencies.

Our participants shared that it’s difficult to work with small enterprises, because the founder or CEO often wants to implement their own ideas, not the results of research. It’s logical, since they scaled their company with their own intuition and quick decision-making, and it’s difficult to put these aside. Naturally research and interviews do not replace their intuition and professional experience, these just come in handy at a later stage. It’s important to first understand the context without any judgement, to make the best decisions based on the combination of all our available resources

Kamill and László shared that they had a lot of bad experiences, when they guided founders of SME-s through the consultative research process, made the maps to assist ideation, and instead of continuing to collaborate, the client carried on individually. Without any prototyping and testing, the results were not nearly as impressive as they could have been, if they let the service designers complete the entire strategy.  

Good Practices for Working with SME-s

Iván shared that since SME-s have a smaller budget, and they tend to have shorter projects, it’s cardinal to show tangible results as soon as possible. These surpass proof of concept, they’re more like prototype packages. They invest as much time as possible early on into creating a fully animated ultra-high-fidelity prototype, that the client can test, start to sell – or in case of startups present to investors. They’re often very successful with this approach, and they help small businesses achieve huge growth. Iván also mentioned, that of course, it’s best to avoid shortening the research process, because important things can come out of it, but sometimes it might be the necessary decision to do so.

For example, let’s take a financial institution. The board, or CEO decides that they want a mobile application to interact with new customers. The institution either has no in-house expertise or no capacity to tackle service design. Here, an agency can come in (like meet|) and take the project, discover why the client wants a mobile app in the first place. They also ask every professional within the institution and validate their ideas individually. After figuring out their pain points, their current issues with the application, their goals, and success criteria using their toolkit, they create a brief. The UI/UX designers (such as ff.next) can start their work based on this brief. Once the design processes are complete, either internal developers, or an agency like Splendex finish the digital product.

Recruiting Talent or Teaching Values?

By simple coincidence, all our participants have their own educational courses, from which they hope to recruit talented professionals. Talented people who start learning at your company and continue to grow there are some of the most valuable employees.

Splendex Roundtable - Levente Székely - Recruiting with the cultural fit in mind is critically important for a team and a business to function well.

Iván at ff.next shared that they’ve successfully recruited 3 colleagues after they’ve completed the course (UI Academy). He also shared that recruiting senior colleagues is possible, but it takes a lot of effort. Growing from a 15-20 people core team to 25-30 is always a monumental step for a company. What has helped Iván, and his team recruit people is they emphasize the possibility and importance of learning. They willingly buy online courses or give projects to new candidates where they can work exactly with what they’d like to get better at.

Within meet|, their course (Legyél Service Designer or LSD for short) is a 12-week program, with theoretical and project work phases. They’re able to recruit junior and mid-level colleagues from this course because it doubles as an assessment. Within the 3 months, they get to know how individuals react to design thinking, and how helpful they might be within their agency. At meet|, recruiting senior colleagues requires incredible luck, or lots of time, until they acquire the company-specific knowledge. Within their agency it’s of utmost importance that the professionals combine business and design well, they can relate to the client, provide value, and educate within the consultation stage too. No one walks through the door already perfect at all the above, but some people can pick it up quicker.  

If you enjoyed this blog, consider watching the Hungarian discussion by clicking here, or get in touch with us for a free consultation! 

Kitti Timár
Marketing Coordinator